Valley business owners see opportunities during historic dry spell

The Fresno BeeFebruary 22, 2014 

In one of the driest years in California's recorded history, the water shortage in the central San Joaquin Valley continues to affect local farmers as they whittle the number of acres they can cultivate due to a lack of water.

But the state's historic drought has also presented challenges and opportunities to other local businesses.

For home builders and construction companies, the lack of rain has allowed them to get their jobs done without any weather-related delays. Yet, they said the drought is changing the future of home building as companies are preparing for what they call "a major pressure" for houses that feature water-saving designs and devices.

"We know it's coming," said Mike Miller, Fresno division president of Lennar Homes. "We're trying to help the overall county by being as water conscious as we can."

Builders are taking several measures, including creating water-conscious designs, changing lawn types to drought-resistant varieties, and installing drip-irrigation systems — all in an effort to help with the water shortage.

"The more we can do today, the better we can make it for everybody for the ongoing future," Miller said.

The dry spell has given other businesses a lift.

Tammy Price is one of the owners of the local office of SYNLawn, a synthetic lawn company. She said such lawns are becoming an attractive option during the drought. Sales are up 30% compared with last year.

"It saves water, it saves money, and your lawn is still green," Price said. "Business has definitely picked up."

Price said customers switching to synthetic turf lawns are also changing their mindsets since 60% to 70% of a household's water use is on landscape.

"It's making people aware of how much they are wasting on watering their lawn," Price said. "People are thinking how they're using their water, which is good."

The lack of rain has also had an impact on the Highway 180 braided ramps project.

Paul Garcia, the project's quality manager, said the dry, sunny weather has helped maintain the project's schedule and budget while avoiding expensive cleanup costs after it rains.

"We've been praying for no rain," Garcia said. "We could have been several weeks behind schedule if it had rained."

Garcia said it has also been beneficial to workers.

"When it rains, they can't work," Garcia said. "They have to stay home, meaning they don't get a paycheck."

For Belmont Nursery near southeast Fresno, the business is experiencing both challenging and fruitful outcomes from the drought. The $3 billion nursery industry is the state's fourth-valued commodity, according to the 2012 California Agricultural Production Statistics report.

Jon Reelhorn, owner of Belmont Nursery, said it is difficult to forecast what to plant and how much. What he plants now won't be ready for sale in a year or two.

"We ask ourselves: Will people plant less because they don't want to water or will they demand change?" Reelhorn said. "It's dicey."

Although Reelhorn doesn't anticipate a drop in sales, he's noticing people are buying differently.

"People are going to come in and ask for low-water-use plants because of the drought," he said.

On the upside, the nursery has benefited as homeowners take advantage of this winter's unseasonably warm weather to shop. January's sales were up 8% compared with the previous year.

"We're always busy if the weather is nice," Reelhorn said. "Homeowners are excited to buy."

The higher temperatures and lack of precipitation have also made other business owners, who are typically closed during winter, think twice.

Donna Mott, owner of Ooh de Lolli, sells paletas (ice pops) from a cart at various food truck events around Fresno.

Mott shut down for the winter because she thought no one would want her paletas when it's cold.

"But there's no sign of winter anywhere, the weather is pleasant," she said. "If I had everything in place, I could be out and still be selling. But who knew?"

Now, Mott said she's missing out on some extra income.

"Lesson learned," she said. "Lesson learned."


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6659, or @DianaT_Aguilera on Twitter.

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